Changing Lives in Laos: Society, Politics, and Culture in a Post-Socialist State.

AuthorSims, Kearrin
PositionBook review

Changing Lives in Laos: Society, Politics, and Culture in a Post-Socialist State. Edited by Vanina Boute and Vatthana Pholsena. Singapore: NUS Press, 2017. Softcover: 457pp.

Academic research on Laos has grown significantly over the past decade. This growth in the field of Lao studies is well synthesized in Vanina Boute and Vatthana Pholsena's edited volume Changing Lives in Laos. Incorporating the expertise of an impressive range of scholars, the 15-chapter book is thematically grouped under four research themes: state formation and political legitimation; natural resource governance and agrarian change; ethnic minorities' engagement with modernity; and mobility and migration. Each of these prominent themes is comprehensively addressed and, while different chapters will naturally appeal to different readers, the book successfully delivers an encompassing analysis of contemporary processes of social, political and cultural change in Laos.

In Section 1 the cumulative contribution of the five chapters is a nuanced understanding of Lao state formation, consolidation and change. Consideration is given to shifting interpersonal relationships and patron-client networks within the Lao politburo, the role of iconography in advancing historical narratives (which seek to align Lan Xang kings with the struggle for national liberation) and the political complexities surrounding political revolution and the state's relationship with the Buddhist Sangha. What each of these chapters emphasizes, and as Pholsena explicitly argues in Chapter Five, is that understanding political change requires moving beyond "normative political language" to give consideration to a broad range of processes including the socialization of individuals and the complex forces that internalize the "norms and values" of state institutions (p. 130).

Section 2 begins with what are, in this reviewer's opinion, the two best written chapters in the book. In Chapter Seven, Olivier Evrard and Ian G. Baird review the literature on how agriculture has been transformed across previous decades, particularly since 1975. With a strong focus on the development and poverty implications of agrarian change, the authors show that farming and land use changes during the past 40 years have "resulted in considerable reorganization of space" through elite land capture, foreign direct investment, contract farming and other forms of capitalist enclosure (p. 189). In Chapter Eight, Michael B. Dwyer...

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